For a program that has a 125-year reputation built upon nasty defense and a physical running game, it has been Alabama’s passing game that has made the difference during this dynasty era.
How about this?
This one ring a bell?
The first momentous game of the Saban era?
Who can forget Cody 5?
The best player on the field throughout the 2017 College Football Playoffs?
A guy named Julio?
This guy was pretty good too.
How about the man that helped end the Derwin James for Heisman campaign?
The chances are, some of your biggest memories of Alabama football over the last dozen years have involved the passing game. And, even when the wideouts aren’t the ones making the plays, their presence on the field commands such attention that the Tide’s other pass catchers can be difference makers. Despite another year of first-round NFL attrition, 2018 looks to be no different. The case can be made that, top-to-bottom, this is the best receiving corps Alabama has had under Nick Saban.
During this offseason, we covered how the dynamic freshmen won a national title — their early enrollment, and repeated reps as a unit in practice, allowed a chemistry to develop that is far more palpable than many veteran offenses. Nowhere was it more apparent than on the final few Alabama drives: Henry Ruggs III with three critical catches and a score. Tua Tagovailoa distributing the ball to Jerry Jeudy for a big 20-yard gainer. DeVonta Smith’s legend-making 41-yard grab. Najee Harris’ huge pickup on the ground. And, in front of them all, freshman tackle Alex Leatherwood — pressed into service in the place of an all-American — opening holes and neutralizing the rush to buy time on 2nd and 26.
Jerry Jeudy: Mr. Reliable
Mr. Reliable. Probably the most polished of the bunch, there’s nothing much the rising sophomore can’t do. Physical, strong hands, and a willingness to go up and after the ball. His role has primarily been in the Scott Norwood Z No. 2 spot: Not the fastest player, he is exceptional with the ball in the air. Jeudy averaged 19 yards per on his 14 grabs and notched two scores. He has the potential to be a true No. 1 on the outside.
DeVonta Smith: The Home Run Threat.
We raved after NSD 2017 about DeVonta. He’s not the biggest player at the position, that’s for sure. But, he has serious jets. Smith only hauled down 8 passes, but he averaged an even 20 yards per reception, and 3-of-the-8 touches were for scores.
Henry Ruggs III: The New No. 1
While I’ve been high on Jeudy, it seemed as though Ruggs both had a greater knack for getting open and in establishing rapport with his quarterbacks in the red zone. Of the talented trio, Ruggs had the most receptions yards, averaged over 19 yards per grab, and fully half of his touches went for scores (6.) Of the three, he also had the longest catch on the season (60 yards.) The X position, vacated after sending a third straight WR to the NFL’s first round, will come down to Ruggs and Jeudy, but at this point we give a slight nod to HR3. It’s hard to overlook his comfort and production in the red zone.
Shot out of a Cannon
Perhaps the fastest straight-line player off the line on the roster, the diminutive return man and deep ball threat, Xavian Marks, has spent his share of time in and out of the doghouse. That is unfortunate, because you simply cannot coach his speed. When the ball is in his hands, the former high-school track start has the potential to make big things happen. He will need to maintain his steady all-around improvement to press DeVonta Smith for time on the outside. Last season the senior doubled his reception total from 2016. Expect to see those numbers climb somewhat, as Marks sees a target or two every game.
Studs in Waiting
Remember the name. The Tide’s receiving class was understandably small this season. But, there was one player on Nick Saban’s wish list at the position, and, honestly, he is one of the most dynamic pure playmakers to arrive at the Capstone —probably since Tyrone Prothro. This offseason, we did an entire post Jaylen Waddle Appreciation Day post...all for an 18-year old who’s not played a snap of college ball.
Don’t worry, though. He’ll get plenty this year, because it will be awfully hard to keep the versatile Waddle off the field — safety, running back, return man, receiver: everything he does is just soooo damn smooth. Those comparisons to Percy Harvin aren’t unwarranted.
Waddle isn’t the only true freshman who will make an impact
Another true Freshman, Xavier Williams, has been somewhat lost in the hype of the Tide’s returning trio and the monsters-in-waiting on the roster. But, Williams is probably the most polished of the bunch. The nation’s number 3 WR in the 2018 NSD class, Williams has great body control, soft hands, runs really fluid routes, and leverages his size well, especially along the sidelines and in the end zone. He will definitely see the field at some point this season, and should press for the WR1 spot in a year or so.
Battling for Time
Senior Derek Kief hasn’t been able to see the field very much, netting just 7 catches over his career. But, last year the Senior did grab his first touchdown. And, his big body is a nice target on 3rd down and 4-receiver sets.
Chadarius Townsend arrived on campus as an athletic ‘tweener and a tad undersized. But, he has finally hit 190+ on his 6-foot frame, and a year on the scout team should have given him see him play his way onto the depth chart as a reserve. He is exceptionally athletic, being quicker than he is purely fast, but finding a position for him was the real question. Out of small-division Tanner, where he played quarterback, there was a question as to whether he could play in the defensive backfield, be a spot-receiver, or even provide some depth at tailback if needed (a la Ronnie Clark). He’s settled in at receiver nicely and does have potential at the position.
Tyrell Shavers is “big, fast, physical.” He was expected to compete for playing time last season, but ultimately wound up redshirting with Townsend. The kid is a load too: Standing at 6’6”, and leveraging every bit of his massive frame, Shavers has the potential to be a devastating slot option: even the Tide’s linebackers are having trouble with him. Falling somewhere between an undersized tight end and a mammoth receiver, he is emblematic of the positionless “pass catcher” that has become increasingly prevalent in the pros.
Slade Bolden may press for reps as well. It’s hard to say what’s more impressive: his 4.0 GPA or his surprising physicality. Don’t let the smart, pretty boy facade fool you: Bolden was a consensus 4-star, the Nation’s No. 19 all-around athlete, and can play quarterback, receiver, or safety. He’s also physical as a back: his powerful stiff arm and north-south quickness belies the 5’11” 200-pound frame. He is still learning a new position though, so Bolden may take a redshirt this season as Chadarius Townsend did last season.
WR DEPTH CHART PREDICTION:
X: Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, Chadarius Townsend, Xavier Williams
Y: Jerry Jeudy, Tyrell Shavers, Derek Kief
Z: DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Xavier Williams, Xavian Marks
Be very excited about the passing game in 2018. That one household name isn’t there...yet. But there are legitimately three or four players on the outside with the potential to become the next great Alabama receiver — and then legitimate NFL star.
In all, it’s enough to make a man change his refrain to “Tho’ the danged ball!”